XVII FLOWERS OF FLANDERS
FLOWERS OF FLANDERS
EVERYONE knows that war means to the soldier a big measure of deprivation. Every week the recognition is made by thousands of womenfolk at home, when they dispatch the parcel of little luxuries to their "boy"" at the front. And at the front we could only marvel at the aptness of the contents which love had unerringly chosen. Generally the parcel contained eatables---a homemade cake, fruit, chocolate, and what not. Often, too, it contained vermin-killers, carbolic soap, or clean underlinen. And the senders were right. They remembered our love of good food, and they remembered our cold tubs and extravagant laundry bills; and as a matter of fact these were, for most of us, the luxuries which we had most prized, and the loss of which we chiefly mourned.
Every week, however, there used to come to the writer an envelope containing a gift more exquisitely subtle---a soft handkerchief wrapped round a sprig of verbena or of lavender. It was so out of keeping with every circumstance of one's life, so like a breath of fragrance from another world, that its preciousness was infinite, unspeakable. It brought with it memories of the deep quiet of old gardens, the prim brightness of herbaceous borders, and all things dainty and most utterly remote from the sordid business of trench warfare. It was the source of the most intimate personal delight; but at the same time it must be confessed that it did also arouse and point that feeling of deprivation which is never quite absent from life in the trenches. It revived the finer perceptions which had become dulled by constant contact with the squalid makeshifts of an artificially primitive life---perceptions which one had perhaps been content to see atrophied, feeling that if one had to live like a savage it were best to become like one. It was, paradoxically enough, at once a consolation and an irritant: a narcotic bringing sweet dreams of the unattainable, and a tonic stimulating inconvenient faculties into a new and insistent life.
The laziness which made one content to "sink i' the scale" and become a brute was checkmated. The æsthetic faculties, once roused, refused to die of inanition, and found food even in the rest camp and the trenches. One suddenly realized that one was living very close to Nature, far closer perhaps than ever in one's life before, and that Nature in June is wondrous kind to her lovers. To sleep in the long grass, to be awakened by the pale spreading gold of dawn, to bathe in the clear waters of a pool, and to lie down after among the ragged robins and forget-me-nots while the grows warmer and warmer is a joy that not come to those who live in stout dwellings of brick and stone; but it is the daily experience of soldiers in some rest camps The trouble is that they do not always realize the joy of it. They bury their heads in their blankets and curse at being awakened so early. But to the man who has had his æsthetic faculties aroused it is an experience pregnant with exhilaration and delight. And even when he leaves the rest camp for the firing line he finds that in some ways man's calamity has been Nature's opportunity. Villages are wrecked , crops ungathered; but Nature has rioted unchecked. Never were such meadows, deep, thick with mingled grass, and oats, and barley, full of cornflowers, poppies, campions, marguerites, and other delights. Many a man, glancing back over the rich meadows in the early dawn, after a night of sleepless anxiety, must have, felt as he never felt before the compelling charm of Nature run wild. But it is then that the trouble becomes acute. The contrast between the full joyous harmony of spring and the sordid strife of men is too great to be borne with a quiet mind. It makes a man restless and discontented. It fills him with a love of life and a loathing for the days of danger and discomfort to which he stands by honor committed. War is an exacting trade, demanding stern courage and endurance, and perhaps life itself, and it does not make a man a better soldier to rail against it and condemn it. The æsthete does not make a good fighter.
Some men, faced with this dilemma, find it best to turn their backs resolutely on the meadows behind the trench, and to account Nature a traitress and a temptress. They can find no synthesis between the joy of life and its destruction, no bridge between honor and duty on the one side and red ragged robins, provokingly lovely, on the other. Like St. Paul, they are careful to sow only spiritual things, that they may gain eternal life.
Well, it is better to be a Puritan than a beast, and it may be that even Paul would have found no room for flowers in the hour of life and death. But if we go to a greater than Paul, He will show us a more excellent way. The Puritan fails to see the Spirit in the beauty of the flowers, and the æsthete sees only the sordidness in pain and death. But Paul's Master showed the beauty' of both. He saw in the lilies of Galilee the tokens of a Father's love, an assurance of the beauty of the life which is eternal, while the Cross, with its tradition of sordid degradation, He raised to be the symbol of love divinely beautiful, and of life triumphant over death.
And if the Master was right---if beauty is one and life eternal---is not the problem solved? Then we see with new eyes.
Scarlet poppy, blue cornflower, red ragged robins, and all that company of gaily dressed fellows are not the pagans we thought them, but good Churchmen after all. To be gay and debonair just for a day is the work that the good Father has given them. It is their beauty and His glory, and therefore it is our pure joy to have them nodding at our feet. On the other hand, the same good Father has laid it on men to offer their life for an ideal. If we fought from blood-lust or hate, war would be sordid. But if we fight, as only a Christian may, that friendship and peace with our foes may become possible, then fighting is our duty, and our fasting and dirt, our wounds and our death, are our beauty and God's glory. The glory of the flowers is one and the glory of the man is another, but both alike belong to the One Father and Creator of all.